View Full Version : Metafiction

07-25-2006, 06:55 PM
I'm really having trouble grasping the term "metafiction". I understand the most basic incarnation of it, such as a novel about a person writing a novel...but I'm having trouble grasping enough to make a coherent explanation or argument. More specifically I am trying desperately to associate metafiction with Robert Coover's works, The Babysitter and The Public Burning. I love his works and I keep seeing journal articles regarding "Metafiction in Robert Coover" and I just -don't- understand them.

I'm not sure why I can not grasp this notion of metafiction. I do not have a strong philosophy background but it is usually general enough that I can still catch on. I read definitions, the wikipedia article, and so on... No matter what and I still am unable to make a conversation on it. Something, somewhere, is just not clicking with me.

Thoughts? Comments? Point out obvious things that perhaps I might get? What is your definition of metafiction?

07-26-2006, 12:42 AM
As far as I can tell, it's fiction that circles around to reality as much as possible, yet still retains the right to call itself "fiction". I read an excerpt from Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler a couple of years ago, and didn't know it was considered metafiction at the time, but I still noted that he was projecting all of the actions onto the reader, regardless of whether or not the reader was in fact doing them. That kind of book basically turns the reader into a fictional character.

But I've seen by poking around Wikipedia a little more that there are different things a writer can do to make his work fit into the metafiction category. I read The Princess Bride years ago as a teenager but I don't remember any kind of Calvino type element in it at all, so he must have done something else.

"Metafiction is a kind of fiction which contains references to the fiction writing process, for example an author including his notes as part of the work." (From Wikipedia)

So I'm curious if this includes writing about a character who happens to be a novelist. As far as I can see, it does.

beer good
07-26-2006, 09:10 AM
So I'm curious if this includes writing about a character who happens to be a novelist. As far as I can see, it does.Not necessarily, I think, though it often does; depends a lot on what the author actually DOES in the story. Of course, it's possible to write a story about an author where his job itself has no more influence on the story than it would have if he were a hot-dog salesman. A lot of stories with writers in them do have some metafictional touches, though; Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" and Paul Auster's "Oracle Night" spring to mind.

To me (I have absolutely no formal education in these things) metafiction is fiction that breaks the "fourth wall" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_wall); ie blurs the line between author, reader and the work of fiction itself.

There are a lot of ways to do this; one of the most common (and most difficult to pull off convincingly) is to make the characters in a book conscious - at least to some extent - that they are indeed characters in a fictional story. One of the best examples I know is Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita", where the main character time and again blames his actions on some mysterious unseen character that forces him to act the way he does - ie the author of the book. Very subtle, but it works.

The writer can insert him/herself as a character in the book; again, King's "Dark Tower" series is a good (though perhaps not recommendable) example. The character Stephen King is ALMOST identical to the writer Stephen King, except he actually gets to meet (and run in terror from) his characters.

Much like Bret Easton Ellis in "Lunar Park" which starts out as an autobiography by Bret Easton Ellis, but then gradually turns into a ghost story in which the fictional character Bret Easton Ellis is haunted by the monsters that the author Bret Easton Ellis has created in his earlier books.

Another way is to make fictional works - one's own or others' - part of the storyline itself. In Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana", the main character suffers partial amnesia and only remembers books he's read; he can only speak in quotes, and the only thing he knows about himself is what sort of literature he likes - thus making himself a metafictional character. I guess.

Or an excellent example: Jasper Fforde's detective novels about Thursday Next, literary detective, who constantly has to go into other people's novels to solve crimes within them - for instance, she's never been able to solve the case of who stole all the punctuation from the last chapter of Joyce's "Ulysses".

Ever watch the movie "Adaptation"? The movie is written by Charlie Kaufman based on a book by Susan Orlean. The plot of the movie is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman trying to write a screenplay based on a book by Susan Orlean (and failing miserably). That's metafiction.

Or, why not, an example from one of the more metafictional TV shows: "Buffy The Vampire Slayer". In which Buffy at one point, when forced to fight the forces of evil again, sighs in exasperation:
Must be Tuesday."Buffy", of course, aired on Tuesdays.

Etc. Hope that was at least a little bit helpful... if someone has a simpler explanation I'd love to hear it...

07-26-2006, 10:47 AM
Might be useful to sort out what 'meta' refers to first. I tried to get people's views on what metaphysics was recently and, while no one was able to be very clear, someone said that in Aristotle, the term literally meant, 'after physics'. The idea that metafiction is fiction after fiction seems to me to work well. This would put any work of fiction that is overtly concerned with its condition as fiction into the category of metafiction. I also like the idea of 'after' because it seems appropriate to postmodernism, the broader movement within which metafiction seems to fall and in which everything seems to be in inverted commas.

All of beer good's examples are obviously correct. I might add a relatively early one, Raymond Queneau's The Bark Tree in which the (cardboard cutout) characters suddenly start wondering what all this black stuff is all over them and realise it's printer's ink. However, I think there may be subtler ways of making fiction about being fiction. I suspect, though I haven't done much more than dip into Coover, that he falls into this category. The meta aspect seems to be that he wears the artifice and fictitiousness of his stories very much on his sleeve. Again, it's the sense of everything being overtly fake and the sense that it's quoted from elsewhere.

07-26-2006, 02:31 PM
I'll also throw in At Swim, Two Birds as an excellent example of metafiction. The story is about an author that writes a story about an author whose characters rise up out of the fictional novelist's story to rebel against the plot. Also, John Barth's Chimera plays well with the idea of a writer writing a story while living it.

Metafiction can be very tongue-in-cheek wink wink nudge nudge with the reader, or completely serious in its approach. As a techy, I understand it best by comparing it to "metadata", which is data about data. For instance, your digital camera takes pictures. Associated with each of those picture files, is a collection of statistics about the picture (fstop, exposure settings, camera model, etc). That is the metadata contained within the picture data.

07-26-2006, 03:55 PM
So, our book club selection, The Hours, would be metafiction, referring both to characters reading works by other characters, and another book entirely (Mrs. Dalloway)?

from Oceanflower's intro:

As Cunningham moves between the three women, his transitions are seamless. One early chapter ends with Woolf picking up her pen and composing her first sentence, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." The next begins with Laura rejoicing over that line and the fictional universe she is about to enter. Clarissa's day, on the other hand, is a mirror of Mrs. Dalloway's--with, however, an appropriate degree of modern beveling as Cunningham updates and elaborates his source of inspiration. --Kerry Fried--

07-26-2006, 04:43 PM
I haven't read The Hours, but it might lack a certain metafictional quality of artifice. From what I can gather, most metafictions don't really bother trying to make their characters and situations believable since that would run counter to the pervasive sense of them being perpetually mindful of their own fictional state.

07-27-2006, 04:30 AM
I'll also throw in At Swim, Two Birds as an excellent example of metafiction. The story is about an author that writes a story about an author whose characters rise up out of the fictional novelist's story to rebel against the plot.
That sounds beyond fascinating (metafascinating? :p). I'm going to have to check that one out.

07-27-2006, 06:05 AM
So, judging by the definitions being worked on, the film Adaptation, while not being a novel, would perhaps be an example of a work of metafiction?

07-27-2006, 03:14 PM
This is all very interesting and helpful, thank you. I do have a grasp on metafiction and now I'm just trying to grasp it further and relate it to things such as media and popular culture. I am currently at that point where I understand it but I am having trouble explaining it in words and connecting it all together! I have found some very interesting examples in Coover's writings:
a) The mirror of realism in his writing style, such as in Gerald's Party the story is so choppy and cacophonous that the writing style resembles a wild party. This is also evident in The Babysitter where the different realities within the story are based on what is on the TV and resemble someone flipping through the TV channels.
b) Coover's form of writing makes it impossible for one to read with blind pleasure -- instead the reader is being forced to analyze the story during the process of reading because of the techniques he uses.

oi vey oi vey. In one article I was reading it states that "metafiction encourages the individual to cut himself off from the popular culture that surrounds him," yet Coover's work reflects and comments upon that popular culture -- so is it still metafiction? Perhaps the article was talking about a specific form of metafiction, I can't really be sure.

Reference: Heckard, Margaret. Robert Coover, Metafiction, and Freedom. Twentieth Century Literature p210-227

07-27-2006, 03:34 PM
That sounds beyond fascinating (metafascinating? :p). I'm going to have to check that one out.

So this fictional author is the focus of At Swim and is writing a story about another author that has a story where a character is supposed to be an avatar of evil. However, in the metafictional portion of the novel, this character falls in love with another woman in the book and they decide that the best way to allow their love to grow is to drug the author so that he can't write future events consistent with the "evil" character trait.

At least I think that's what happens... :confused: